Monday, October 05, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #2: The Babadook

Of all the things ‘The Babadook’ gets right – and let’s just call it from the outset: ‘The Babadook’ is a film of such intuitive psychological intelligence and aesthetic filmmaking confidence that it’s astounding to realize that it’s a debut feature – perhaps its greatest strength is that writer/director Jennifer Kent isn’t scared to structure what is essentially a two-hander around two often unlikeable (and sometimes outright fucking detestable) characters, one of them a young child.

Indeed, it would be fair to say ‘The Babadook’ documents the unhealthiest mother/son relationship this side of Oedipus Rex. Mrs Bates and young Norman are a well-adjusted picture of fulsomeness compared to young widow Amelia (Essie Davis) and her demanding 6-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). A floaty, surreal opening sequence establishes the dynamic immediately: a heavily-pregnant Amelia was on her way to hospital when a car accident robbed her of her husband and left her with, to put it mildly, mixed feelings towards her child.

Fast forward and Amelia is working a thankless job, struggling to cope with Samuel’s neediness, trying to suppress a rollercoaster of grief/resentment/hormonal overdrive, and stoically withstanding the vaguely contemptuous pity/condescension that seems to be the standard operating procedure of the smug housewives who constitute Amelia’s poor alternative for a social life. She’s about two sleeping pills away from a nervous breakdown, and it doesn’t help that Samuel is forever tinkering away down in the basement, creating little gizmos, unearthing his late father’s possessions, and subconsciously modeling a persona on that of a man he never knew.

Kent takes her time establishing all this, almost dissecting every interaction between two people who don’t, for all that they’re bonded by blood and loss, actually like each other all that much. To Amelia, Samuel is an annoyance; an incessant drain on her patience. To Samuel, for reasons that only become apparent after Kent pulls a mid-film POV switch that’s as subtle as it is audacious, Amelia is someone he desperately needs to protect even though his motivations are underpinned by fear.

And even contriving that deliberately vague and not particularly elegant sentence, I start to wonder if I’m giving too much away. ‘The Babadook’ is grueling; upsetting; emotionally bleak. Like all the greatest horror movies, it roots its sense of horror into something all too human, all too real, all too immediately recognizable. A few nights ago, at home, I was sitting in my bedroom, reading, the window open. From the street below, the caterwauling of a young child demanding attention. Said racket was superseded by a screech from the child’s mother: “Fuckin’ shurrup!” What chance for a child raised in that environment? What effects when unconditional love is stamped out by anger and vehemence? ‘The Babadook’ renders a more effectively disturbing treatment of these questions by placing Samuel in the emotional cauldron engendered not by some teenage chavette for whom a child is merely a shortcut to a benefits claim but a mature woman with a job and responsibilities whose personal circumstances and devastating loss ought to make her a centerpiece for the audience’s sympathies.

The other great success of the film is its introduction of the supernatural. One day, Samuel demands that Amelia read him not one of his usual retinue of gently improving bedtime stories, but from a book he’s found that Amelia is sure she’s never seen before. A hardback tome with sturdy covers, rough pages, childlike but gut-wrenchingly sinister woodcuts and stark minimalist prose which tells the story of a creature called (you guessed it) the Babadook. The Babadook, it turns out, fair enjoys killing people. Amelia, naturally, recoils at the book’s content (the fact that its most horrific images are incorporated as cheesy pop-ups makes it somehow worse) and hides it on a top shelf. The book returns. She throws it out. It returns. She burns the motherfucker. Whaddaya know? Can’t keep a bad book down.

From hereon in, the Babadook threads itself through the fabric of the movie: whether seen, unseen or half-glimpsed, it literally haunts the film. And it’s under the shadow of the Babadook’s pervasive presence that Kent effects her mid-film switcheroo and suddenly the audience’s perception has changed and the stakes are higher. To say much more would be a disservice to anyone yet to discover the film’s grim delights. I say “grim” advisedly, because this is one of the most emotionally bruising horror movies I’ve encountered for a while. Entire stretches of it are depressing on an Ingmar Bergman circa ‘The Silence’ or a Lukas Moodysson circa ‘Lilya 4-Ever’ level of depressing. You could strip out every vestige of the supernatural and ‘The Babadook’ would still function as a horror movie because it taps into such a morbid and emotionally raw area of the psyche.

Indeed, back-pedalling from the obvious supernatural elements might have strengthened the finale, certainly during a couple of scenes where Kent seems to doubt her own directorial style and borrows fairly obviously from the David Lynch playbook, and not least with regards to the finale which seems very stagy and suggests that an evil spirit is best confronted when you’re super-fucking-pissed-off.

Still, genuinely scary horror films are as thin on the ground as genuinely intelligent ones, and ‘The Babadook’ manages to be both. It’s also exceptionally well crafted and the performances are raw, nervy and immediate. If you only know Essie Davis as the elegant 1920s sleuth in the ‘Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries’ TV show, be prepared for a revelation. And whatever Jennifer Kent directs next, prepare for one hell of movie.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #1: Sinister

Described in terms of its most reductive elements – a couple with young children move into a house in which something violent and tragic occurred; inexplicable events happen; the children encounter spirits and/or start acting out of character – ‘Sinister’ sounds utterly boilerplate. The few words of that synopsis could be applied to any number of horror titles from ‘Amityville’ to ‘The Conjuring’. Most of which also ensure that the protagonists are financially overstretched so that simply grabbing the car keys and fucking right off the moment the weird shit kicks in isn’t an option to them.

The first of a handful of things that ‘Sinister’ does differently – not perhaps differently enough to vouchsafe it a reputation as a re-interpretative or deconstructive classic of its subgenre, but enough to keep the attention of the more jaded and difficult-to-please horror fan – is to make its protagonist white-collar and cerebral rather than blue-collar and mortgaged up to the hilt. (Have you ever noticed how often the paterfamilias in these kind of movies is a construction worker or similar? As if the scriptwriters are saying, “hey folks, this guy’ll be too dumb to figure out what’s going on, so he’ll have to consult priests and academics during the movie and we can therefore flood you with exposition”.) Granted, our rather nervy hero, Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), is scrabbling for a grasp at the brass ring as desperately as the bread-winners in ‘Amityville’ or ‘Conjuring’, but in his case it’s a reputational rather than fiscal imperative.

Ellison is a once-bestselling author whose reinvestigation of a murder case earned him a New York Times #1 bestseller, a period of flash-in-the-pan celebrity and the lifelong enmity of law enforcement officials wherever he goes – his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), complains of spending her life driving at five miles under the legal limit and being ticketed anyway – due to his less-than-flattering portrayal of cops. Subsequent books don’t seem to have recaptured his initial success – a mordant early scene has an antagonist hick sheriff (Fred Thompson) enumerate the various inaccuracies in each volume – and he’s pinning his hopes on a literary comeback on an account of a murdered family and a missing girl.

Marital tensions are already rife between Ellison and Tracy, the latter despairing of how her husband’s writing comes before his family. Tracy’s reservations that they are once again going to be moving, as a family, “two doors down from a crime scene”, are quickly proved right. For this time Ellison has actually moved them into the crime scene. The argument that erupts when Tracy finds out is as hide-behind-the-sofa as any of the supernatural elements. Hawke and Rylance nail the dynamic of a couple whose relationship is unravelling: they yell impotently, stumble over their words, pick up mid-sentence on something the other has said and the argument zings off peripherally like a pinball. God knows whether it was scripted so precisely, or ad-libbed during filming, but it’s a tour de force of kitchen sink realism and it anchors the more obviously hokey and generic narrative beats.

Horror is generally more interesting when mature characters are called upon to deal with the inexplicable. Even a second division outing like ‘Vacancy’ immediately benefits from focussing on a couple in their thirties and the emotional baggage of their lives so far, rather than throwing a bunch of kids into the mix and thumb-twiddling through the obligatory tomfoolery and making out, merely killing time until the blood-letting starts. In ‘Sinister’, a flawed but basically decent bloke (he genuinely cares about his kids, even though Tracy’s accusation about his priorities isn’t without foundation) has a significant reason to remain in a haunted property; moreover, his co-option of a local deputy and an academic with an interest in the esoteric – the kind of characters, as noted above, who are usually introduced merely to spout exposition – are not only narratively relevant but provide insight into Ellison’s personality. His borderline exploitation of the puppyishly enthusiastic deputy (for whom a mention in a book’s acknowledgements page is the highest accomplishment he can think of) demonstrates how sneakily Ellison conducts his research and is the film’s clearest indicator of why Tracy has come to view her husband’s profession with trepidation.

The supernatural elements start innocuously: Ellison finds an old projector and some canisters of Super 8 film with bland titles like “Pool Party” and “Sleepy Time”. Running them, he finds they all follow a pattern: surreptitious documentation of a family interacting together followed by the ritualistic killing of same in a manner that mimics or subverts the dynamic which brought them to their offscreen murderer’s attention. Ellison is initially repulsed, but when he finds footage of the case he’s investigating, curiosity and the promise of a surefire bestseller prove too compelling. Naturally, he’s concerned that the material be kept from his children and he’s careful to stow the projector and the film cans away, even keeping them under lock and key. Progressively, however, he wakes in the night to find the projector set up and scenes of horror flickering across the walls of his home.

For a good chunk of the film’s middle section, director and co-writer Scott Derrickson treads an ambiguous enough line – things half-seen; Ellison behaving increasingly erratically – to suggest it’s either all in his mind or that he’s being possessed by whatever malevolent spirit is at work. Ellison’s research and the gradual uncovering of connections between the murder victims is juxtaposed against his embattled mental state, his fragmenting marriage and the potential psychological impact on his children. All told, Derrickson brings slow-burn tension to boiling point with remarkable aplomb for someone whose previous genre outings were the best-not-spoken of ‘Hellraiser: Inferno’ and the unfocussed ‘Exorcism of Emily Rose’. He keeps his villain – identified in various children’s drawings as “Mr Boogie” – firmly in the shadows. His big scare moments are earned, and there is remarkably little playing to the gallery.

Right up, that is, until the end. There would have been a really simple and effective way to conclude ‘Sinister’: right at the point where Ellison receives the crucial last piece of information. A ‘Tenebre’-like reveal of a character behind another character; a face at a window; or just an abrupt cut to black and an ambiguous noise on the soundtrack. ‘Sinister’ could easily have kept its demon in the shadows and its audience unnerved. However, Derrickson does two things in the last five minutes which threaten to unravel much of the good work he’s achieved up till then. Neither of these moments utterly deflate the film like, say, the last third of ‘Insidious’, but it’s still an annoyance that ‘Sinister’ stumbles so wonkily after not putting a foot wrong for nearly two hours.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Fearsome fulminations from the Pumpkin King …

Greetings to however of few of you web-surfing horror aficionados still wend your wicked way to this dastardly and disreputable corner of the blogosphere.

Needs must, I commence this year’s prefatory address with an apology. I usually take my annual break from Agitation (1st November to 30th September) in the secure knowledge that the wordy little homunculus who administrates these pestilential pages will keep up a decent schedule of sarcastic commentary, caustic opinionism and generally revel in the kind of filmic fare that your mother would chastise you for, your wife divorce you for, and your best mates come round to watch with a keg of beer and a pizza the size of Kanye West’s ego. Only last year I took my break and what did said homunculus do? He got sidetracked by a publishing project and the training for a half marathon. And what do I come back to? A corner of the blogosphere emptier than David Cameron’s moral conscience.

So do please accept my apologies for a half year’s depletion of content. If this vile little blog hasn’t for some strange reason fallen like a dead leaf from your link list, please also accept my heartiest thanks and my assurances that young Fulwood has been imprisoned in a dank basement with only a laptop, a WiFi password, some slightly out of date snack foods and a stack of DVDs. Once he’s redeemed himself with this year’s 13 For Halloween and a good showing on the Winter of Discontent, he’ll be allowed a couple of beers, a shower and three-minute telephone call with Mrs F. Any funny business and it’ll be the nipple clamps and some unspeakable business with a rubber chicken.

But I digress. In the spirit of compliance, young Fulwood has already penned this month’s first horror movie review, and is currently sketching out the second (under threat of a rusty metal-working tool and a Justin Bieber CD on a continuous loop). I think it’s safe to say that things will be getting back to normal around these parts.

You’re welcome, folks. Don’t mention it. The pleasure is all mine …

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The British Transport Films Collection

This hefty box set collects 125 railway-related public information films in nine volumes across eighteen DVDs. With the public information film a thing of the past, the set fulfils several roles: a social document for historians, nostalgia for those of an age to remember steam rail, and a 40-hour nerdgasm for transport buffs. 

It’s also interesting to look at these films as examples of the filmmakers art, since they were all designed for limited runs at cinemas prior to the main feature. You know, back in the day when you got a newsreel, some cartoons and a B-movie as well as the film you’d actually paid your money to see. Instead of the half hour of flashy, vapid adverts you get now. Particularly for cars and expensive European lager. Fuck lager.

Sorry: I got distracted there. Where were we? Ah, yes: public information films. Interesting, as I say, to look at as examples of the short feature. But not interesting enough that I was going to wade through the entire box set (which I borrowed from my dad under the misapprehension that it contained Basil Wright’s classic ‘Night Mail’. It doesn’t.) I watched a few shorts from volume one, and the results were mixed.

If I couldn’t have the poetry of W.H. Auden and the music of Benjamin Britten (what other public information film boasts such cachet? even the sound director was Alberto Cavalcanti, six years off making the wartime classic ‘Went the Day Well?’), I settled for ‘John Betjeman Goes by Train’ (1962). Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of Betjeman’s work – I find it parochial and often trite. Betjeman as host during a short rail journey (Kings Lynn to Hunstanton – not a route that was ever going to steal the Canadian Pacific’s romanticism) is far more appealing, particularly when he disembarks from the train to deliver a short monologue on station architecture or gently remind the audience that Snettisham is pronounced Snetsham and never mind how it’s spelled. There’s a winsomeness to him and touch of eccentricity. Like a favourite uncle. Unobtrusively directed by Malcolm Freegard (he simply lets Betjeman be himself and makes sure the camera crew get some good location shots), this 10-minuter was a co-production of British Transport Films and the BBC. Betjeman was something of a favourite with BBC audiences, and it’s a shame the corporation didn’t send him on more railway journeys. He was far better company than the oleaginous Michael Portillo is today.

‘Elizabethan Express’ (1954) also correlates poetry and railways. Here, the film is narrated in rhyming couplets, and two problems immediately emerge: scriptwriter Paul Le Saux was no poet, and narrators Howard Marion-Crawford and Alan Wheatley rattle off the lines with the clipped indifference of Radio Four newsreaders. There’s no nuance or sensitivity to the words, which leaves the piece entirely reliant on its images. Fortunately director Tony Thomson and his three-man camera team capture some evocative black and white footage, particularly in those scenes which document the cramped, sweaty conditions on the footplate – steam rail is only glamorous and nostalgic as long as you’re a passenger. At 20 minutes, though, ‘Elizabethan Express’ is overlong.

‘Blue Pullman’ (1962) was the most visually interesting feature I watched. Documenting the implementation of a commuter-specific diesel-electric express from trials through to the first day of regular service, the film opens with a series of wordless tracking shots through empty carriages as the Pullman hurtles at 90mph through the countryside. The camera lingers on various pieces of equipment recording vibration and camber on bends. There’s something almost surreal about the train’s emptiness: it’s like watching a weird conflation of ‘The Lady Vanishes’ and ’28 Days Later’. Things settle into a conventional documentary narrative less than halfway into its 25 minutes (again: too long) as technicians discuss the Pullman’s capabilities and expected performance. Most of the contributors are stilted and obviously nervous in front of the camera. Director James Ritchie seems aware and ensures there are plenty of aerial shots emphasizing the train’s speed and distinctive livery. As with all of these films, I can imagine them being of limited interest to general audiences, but there’s no denying that ‘Blue Pullman’ must have looked damned good on the big screen.

With a title that suggests a Peter Davidson era ‘Doctor Who’ episode, ‘Cybernetica’ (1972) was a commission for the Union Internationale des Chemins de Fer and explores the infrastructure of the European railway system and the computerisation of booking systems. Either subject could have made for a decent 10 minute short, and there was no reason for ‘Cybernetica’ to be anything other than visually impressive. Unfortunately, the execution is bollocksed in every conceivable manner. The shoddily filmed opening sequence is architecture porn of the dullest variety. The smarmy commentary by Michael Aspel (an inexplicably popular talkshow host from the 1970s with all the personality of a toilet roll holder) focuses on “three pretty girls crossing Europe” and Trevor Roe’s camera gets its male gaze on and forgets all about those pesky trains. There are occasional cutaways to whirring, clunking mainframes encased in acres of solid plastic that you realise with a sudden shock of recognition are what computers used to look like; but then Aspel starts drooling over the “ghurls” again. The casual sexism is appalling, and I stuck 10 of its 20 minutes before voting with my feet … or at least my thumb on the remote control.

‘On Track for the Eighties’ (1980) was the last of the shorts that I watched. Opening uncharacterisatically with shots of earth movers and heavy goods vehicles, its swift 15 minutes establish British Rail’s freight operations as part of a larger transport infrastructure including road and sea. Footage of hovercraft dates the film more effectively than any of the fashions or hairstyles on display. In fact there are very little of either. Unlike most of these British Transport Films, the focus isn’t on passengers or the perceived glamour of rail travel, but on industry and modernisation. ‘On Track for the Eighties’ was the last of British Transport Films’ occasional “rail reports” series, but one doesn’t even need to be aware of this elegiac fact to realise that what director John Legard captured here wasn’t simply a slick bit of PR but a picture of an industrially-confident Britain taking its last throw of the dice before the axe of Thatcherism descended.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Edge of Tomorrow

The chief pleasures of ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ are threefold: 

1. The sight of Tom Cruise playing a shallow, self-interested yellowbelly (at least during the early stretches of the movie) and necessarily emerging with a far more interesting performance than the central casting man of action that the script obligatorily has him morph into by the end;

2. The sight of Emily Blunt playing a pumped-up kick-ass action heroine for enough of the movie that her character’s nom-de-guerre “Full Metal Bitch” is more than earned;

3. The best take on the “protagonist continually relives same day” concept since ‘Groundhog Day’.

Note that “best since” should not be considered a synonym for “as good as”. What makes ‘Groundhog Day’ the exemplar of its particular subgenre is that it takes a hard sci-fi concept and yolks it to a romantic comedy narrative that has absolutely nothing to do with the science fiction genre. As with ‘Pleasantville’, it establishes its high concept bit of metaphysical chicanery straightaway and proceeds with such verve, likeability and imaginative energy that the audience don’t stop to ponder whether the suspension of disbelief has actually been earned. This might sound like a statement of the obvious, but consider how laboriously the likes of ‘Source Code’ and ‘Looper’ hammer home their big conceptual raisons d’etre, continually reiterating the rules and spewing exposition left, right and centre.

‘Edge of Tomorrow’ delivers two or three scenes of exposition dump but does so with brio and economy. One moment in particular (the massive suspension of disbelief bit which explains how an alien thingy can reset time) is done with such a sense of “thank fuck for that, we’ve figured it out, now we can go and twat the fucker” that audience response is less likely to be cynicism and mockery than a genuine gung-ho imperative to go kill alien thingies and then celebrate by adorning their collective bedroom walls with a poster of Emily Blunt in a khaki tee-shirt touting a weapon the size of Big Ben.

Speaking of Big Ben, the film is surprisingly set in the UK and Europe (the trailers made it look generically Stateside). A montage of news reports swiftly sets the scene: some unseen menace has been royally fucking up humanity and casualties are off the scale; however, a recent victory in war-ravaged France has (a) suggested a turning of the tide, and (b) made a poster girl of Sgt Rita Vrataski, a.k.a. Full Metal Bitch, a.k.a. the Angel of Verdun. Hold on to that last moniker: we’ll revisit it in a moment. 

Into the heart of the London-based command centre comes Major William Cage (Cruise), a former ad man now in charge of military PR: his toothpaste-commercial grin and slick interview technique have helped boost recruitment. When his new commanding officer General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) orders him to participate in a frontline amphibious assault on the coast of France in order to portray the glorious fight with even greater immediacy, Cage gets the willies and talk his way out of it. When this fails, he tries to blackmail Brigham.

Bad move.

Brigham’s security staff tazer Cage as he tries to make a run for it. He wakes up to the less than tender mercies of Master Sgt Farell (Bill Paxton, earning himself the Agitation of the Mind “man of the match” award for an absolute pearl of a performance that can only be described as what Clint Eastwood’s character in ‘Heartbreak Ridge’ would have been like if Eastwood hadn’t turned up on the first day of shooting and they’d cast Dirk Bogarde instead) who takes no small degree of pleasure in informing Cage that he’s now a member of a suicide squad.

Outfitted in one of those exoskeleton suits that every sci-fi movie between ‘Aliens’ and ‘Avatar’ has drooled over, Cage and his fellow cannon/alien fodder are dropped onto a beach in France. As you’d expect, he buys the farm pretty quickly. Then he wakes up to the less than tender mercies of Master Sgt Farell who … but you’ll have figured out the reset/restart element of the narrative already.

The beach assault is where ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ simultaneously gets its action movie funk on and becomes rather troublesome. The plus points first: it’s one hell of a sustained set-piece, with a good third of the movie concentrating on how Cage assimilates specific life-or-death details in order to progress further than a few yards inland without dying horribly; the effects are spot on; and the first glimpses of the alien thingies are pure nightmare – a sudden explosion of movement, a suggestion of tentacles, and the attack is all over in an impressionistic blur. Actual definition of the creatures, let alone their hierarchy (which becomes a key plot point), is withheld until much later in the proceedings. Also, the means by which Cage’s endlessly relived day take him in different directions – from callous survivalism as he lets his comrades die to a side-mission in which he enlists Vrataski’s help – are effected by the steady accretion of detail without ever seeming repetitive, which is no small feat.

There are, however, problems. The whole Angel of Verdun/allied beachhead aspects set up parallels with the First and Second World Wars so explicit that the film becomes freighted with a subtext it hasn’t earned, doesn’t deserve and can’t possibly hope to justify. In fact, the longer it goes on, with the sci-fi concept milked for all its worth and the character dynamics degenerating into predictability the closer Cage edges to becoming the hero of the day, the more it seems to cheapen its wartime touchstones.

The other problems are the backgrounding of Vrataski in the finale so that Cage can assume centre stage; the ennui of Cruise morphing into a generic tough guy hero when he was so much more fun to watch as a smarmy propagandist crumbling under an industrial-sized dose of his own medicine; and a final reset/restart that isn’t just a mockery of at least one last-reel act of selfless sacrifice but a narrative cheat.

That it’s still a hell of a lot of fun to watch is some testament to what director Doug Liman and his creative team get right. The early stretches give us the most entertaining Cruise performance since ‘Tropic Thunder’, Blunt hasn’t been this engaged with a role for ages, Gleeson is always good value and can I just repeat myself regarding the Bill Paxton “man of the match” award. In a way it’s frustrating that ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ isn’t a stone-cold classic, because the potential was certainly there. But as with Cruise’s earlier sci-fi outing ‘Oblivion’ what emerges is the ghost of a rigorously intelligent genre outing haunting the edges of the mainstream popcorn movie constraints that guaranteed its budget. The irony is that for its cap-doffing to commercialism, ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ did lacklustre business at the box office business. It says something that its DVD cover fixates on the movie’s tagline “Live. Die. Repeat” and consigns its actual title to the tiniest of lettering. Which part of that “Live. Die. Repeat” slogan will come to exemplify its shelf life remains to be seen.

Monday, September 14, 2015

From Up on Poppy Hill

Goro Miyazaki, son of Studio Ghibli founder Hayao, made his directorial debut in 2006 with ‘Tales from Earthsea’, an overly ambitious attempt to weave elements from the first four books of Ursula K. LeGuin’s ‘Earthsea’ saga into a single epic narrative. The result was intermittently awesome visually but a total clusterfuck as an exercise in storytelling. The world-building was confused and the characters ciphers. 

Mercifully, his second outing avoids all those mistakes. ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ (2011) jettisons complex plotting in favour of character development – although, for its first half, this almost threatens to work to the film’s detriment. For a good 40 minutes, all that happens is some students at an academy protest the imminent closure and demolition of their clubhouse. Oh, and a very low-key romance develops between Umi (voiced by Masami Nagasawa) and Shun (Junichi Okada).

Then Miyazaki throws in an impediment to their nascent relationship so hefty that even Shun has the good grace to deem it as “something out a cheap melodrama”. I’ll leave this review spoiler-free; suffice it to say, it’s a plot device that’s been well-worked throughout the ages and is more in-keeping with histrionic psychological dramas than a U-rated nostalgic anime. Its resolution is no less creaky. None of which bodes well …


It’s just so utterly bloody gorgeous to look at. Even when nothing’s happening, as in the long opening sequence in which the minutiae of Umi’s day are observed in such detail you’d think Miyazaki was using a microscope instead of a set of storyboards, the evocation of a time and a place are effect with such visual beauty, in a such a glorious wash of colour, that it’s impossible not to be captivated.

Set in 1963 in a small harbour town, the film makes only one diversion from its self-contained and precisely defined locale for a sequence where Umi, Shun and their friend Shiro (Shunsuke Kazama) visit Tokyo. Miyazaki clearly relishes the juxtaposition, cramming his frames with imagery, energy and movement, bringing to life a metropolis gearing up for the 1964 Olympic Games. A similar sprightliness infuses the scenes of student life, particularly in wryly observed moment where two opposing factions snap from mutual animosity to well-oiled collusion in order to pull the wool over their tutors’ eyes.

The portrayal of Umi – her emotional vulnerability in sharp contrast to her can-do attitude and strong work ethic – suggests that Hayao Miyazaki’s career-long feminist sensibilities have been vouchsafed by his son. Tradition, responsibility and the innocence of childhood – also thematic staples of Hayao’s work – are also present here.

Various flashbacks to the war unravel the story that threatens to keep Umi and Shun apart, with a reference to the destruction of Nagasaki evoking Isao Takahata’s ‘Grave of the Fireflies’. The difference, of course, is that ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ didn’t offset its heart-wrenching account of the human cost of war with a rose-tinted, semi-comedic coming of age story.

And that’s the main flaw of ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’: its primary narrative is too insubstantial to carry the emotional weight of its subplot. I’m not sure, had the campaign to save the clubhouse been relegated to subplot material and the meddlings of fate in Umi and Shun’s past been the main focus, if the balance would have worked even then.

As it is, watching ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ is to sit through a first half that simply requires you to appreciate some achingly beautiful images and then simultaneously wonder where the hell the big melodramatic humdinger came from and face-palm that anyone thought fit to include it in the first place. Without it, the film could have achieved the delightful, heartfelt simplicity and villain-free narrative of ‘My Neighbour Totoro’. Still, this is only Goro Miyazaki’s second feature, it’s a massive leap forward from his first, and (however the current production hiatus at Ghibli resolves) there is still time.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

That thing with the guy in the place

Remember when I relaunched this blog last month (and, uh, yeah, there is some content coming in September, honest), how I mentioned that I’d been busy for much of this year on a fairly big project? Here’s the inside story.

A few years ago, I blagged my way onto a committee that had been set up to honour and the life and work of Nottingham writer Alan Sillitoe (best known for ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ and ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’). Chaired by Alan’s son David, who provided the photographs for the terrific 1985 travelogue ‘Alan Sillitoe’s Nottinghamshire’, the committee’s aims were twofold:

- Raise funds towards a permanent memorial to Alan, to be cited in Nottingham;

- Keep Alan’s work in the public eye.

Time passed and we held several events (including film screenings and a benefit concert featuring The Smears and Sleaford Mods) and ran poetry competitions adjudicated by such luminaries as George Szirtes and Helen Ivory. But raising the kind of capital needed for a statue or something of equal prominence wasn’t easy.

In January, David and myself started talking about an anthology. I envisaged it as a 60 page collection of poetry, something that would redress the lack of recognition Alan received for his own verse, something we could sell at events, and something that we could offer as an incentive as part of a proposed crowdfunding platform. David had bigger ideas: a chunky collection of poetry, fiction, memoir, essays, travel writing (i.e. an overview of all the different literary disciplines Alan was capable of), plus photography and artwork.

With the help of poet, occasional Agitation contributor and all-round renaissance woman Viv Apple, we put together a list of people we could approach, from established to up-and-coming writers, and set about asking them for new work without so much as a red cent in payment.

We figured we’d get a positive response rate of about 30%. The actual response was more like 90%.

We figured we’d pull the anthology together and have it to the printers by the end of May. It’s now September.

We learned a hell of a lot about publishing in a very short space of time, and a lot of good people helped us up the gradient of that learning curve.

The result is ‘More Raw Material: work inspired by Alan Sillitoe’ – 52 contributors, including this year’s Keats-Shelley Poetry Prize winner, the lead singer of Sleaford Mods, and writers from the Faber, Bloodaxe, Five Leaves and Nine Arches rosters. Plus some exciting and ridiculously talented up-and-comers.

The anthology is currently being typeset and should go to press very soon. There will be a launch in Nottingham, plus a slate of other events next year. There’ll be a website to support the book, and a “mate’s rate” for Agitation readers. Details to follow.

Obviously, there is still work to be done, and there will be an impact on the regularity of content on Agitation for the remainder of the year. Rest assured, though, that 13 For Halloween and the Winter of Discontent will be going ahead as usual. Wouldn’t be Agitation if we didn’t see out the last few months of the year in a welter of cynicism and depravity!